The fight for our right to repair
The world has barrelled well ahead into the 21st century, and this journey has seen us grow into an ever-increasing consumerist society. Long gone are the days when products were made to weather the tests of time and use, when repair and maintenance was our first port of call for damaged goods. Now when something falters, more often than not, we discard it and replace it with another unrepairable product with an equally short life expectancy. This cycle has become an unremarkable way of life for many of us – we buy it, we use it, we discard it, we buy another – all without a second thought.
As we accumulate more and more junk, landfill erupts with our exponential filth. With serious effects on the environment a result of these wasteful habits, a growing awareness is beginning to surface as people across the globe are working to combat our unnecessary consumerism.
Under this endeavour, a venture that has emerged is The Repair Association (US). Formed in 2013, the group seeks to challenge legislation and fight for consumers’ right to repair their own belongings. The Association represents all parties involved in technology repair – from DIY tinkerers and independent repair technicians, to environmental organisations and the aftermarket.
Gay Gordon-Byrne, an executive director of the Association, explains that when companies remove the option of independent repair from customers, not only does this infringe on the consumers’ ownership of the product but it also affects the plethora of companies that provide repair services and rely on this business for survival.
So, not only does independent repair keep countless people employed, it also means that products maintain a longer life with the ability to be repaired, and, at the end of their lives, recycled into something new – thus keeping them out of landfill. Gordon-Byrne says, “Our mission is to restore repair control to the equipment owner. Repair keeps equipment in use so long as the consumer cares to use it. The ideal ‘circular’ economy involves reusing equipment through a chain of owners and then, only when all economic value has been exhausted, is it recycled. Recycling is not the goal in itself. Recycling is the last step in a chain of use and ownership.”
Basically, every manufactured device needs to be in use to warrant its production. And in this throwaway culture in which we live, this seems an elusive goal.
When a fridge or microwave breaks, most people’s first action is to enquire about the cost of repair. If it is too expensive or repair is too difficult, the majority of consumers will buy a replacement. “Price and availability of repair are the number one drivers of new purchases, which is why repair pricing needs to be competitive,” Gordon-Byrne says. “When manufacturers control the price of parts, tools, documentation, diagnostics and firmware, they control repair. It is inevitable, then, that repair pricing will always be high enough to discourage repair and drive consumers to the store.”
The Repair Association is challenging repair legislation and fighting to transfigure it to be similar to Automotive Right to Repair laws, which dictate that vehicle manufacturers make repair parts, manuals and methods available to outside repairers and servicers. This freedom, they argue, should be available to all consumers for all electronic products.
Kyle Wiens is on the board of directors for The Repair Association and is the co-founder and CEO of iFixit, a wiki-based website that teaches people how to fix almost anything. This site forms a global community where anyone can create a repair manual for any device, and anyone can edit the existing manuals to improve them.
Wiens is passionate about the concept of ‘reuse first, recycle second’. “Repair is the cornerstone of our environment and economic future,” he says. “We believe everyone should have the right to maintain and repair their products.” Because, he argues, if you don’t have the right to fix a product that you buy, then do you really own it? iFixit works to combat this, and has grown significantly since its early days. It now hosts more than 25,500 repair manuals for many different products, freely available to consumers across the world.
In Australia, the mending motion has been picked up at a grassroots level and can be seen gaining momentum within certain communities. Pop-up ‘repair cafés’ are becoming the new frontier against consumerism, with a string of these fix-it locations emerging around the country. The first of these was The Bower in Marrickville, Sydney, where a motley crew of volunteer fixers with various skills come together to help repair assorted household items for visitors to the café.
Annette Mayne, marketing and communications officer for The Bower, says, “It would be fantastic if we could bring a change in attitude and behaviour in people, to actually turn away from being a throwaway society.” But, at The Bower, you can’t just dump your stuff and run; part of the deal is that you stay and learn how to fix it yourself. “We’re engaging with people to show them how repair happens, how simple it can be to use tools and to give them some skills,” Mayne explains.
Other cooperatives are popping up in cities around Australia, like the Melbourne Repair Café in the city’s inner west, and they are committed to repairing household items, educating people to fix things themselves, repurposing everyday objects and reducing landfill waste.
We consume things at a rate that far exceeds our ability to repurpose and recycle items and our planet’s ability to cope. Endeavours like The Repair Association, iFixit and repair cafés are a step in the right direction towards changing our entrenched bad habits, but for the sake of the Earth and our futures, it’s time we all returned to the mindset of a bygone era and learned how to fix our belongings – without the fear of manufacturers’ wrath.
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